Caliphate Kids Are Growing Up Watching Public Executions

Public killings have become a routine spectacle for those living under ISIS control, including kids. That may carry tragic consequences

Sep 13, 2015 at 8:32 AM ET

It was another swift act of violence carried out in the Islamic State, the execution of a man deemed to have insulted Islam and quickly put to death this week. His was not a beheading that would attract the world’s attention. It was a routine occurrence, carried out by a member of ISIS in the Syrian city of Aleppo, as part of the daily administration of the Islamic caliphate where Sharia is the law of the land and strict adherence is heavily policed.

But beyond the splatters of blood in the graphic images distributed by ISIS’ media arm was an equally unsettling sight. Near the dead man’s crumpled body stood a toddler, no older than three, staring matter-of-factly at something beyond the frame.

The child was not the first to bear witness to such violent acts.

More To Its Citizens, ISIS Also Shows A Softer Side

In the last year, Vocativ analyzed more than a thousand images of public punishments and executions carried out by Islamic State militants. In almost every one of them, children of all ages appear among the spectators. By and large, they are usually boys. The findings underscore a grim reality of life under ISIS rule. Violence has become a routine spectacle, one that is almost always witnessed by young children, toddlers and teens.

“They’re being shown a level of brutality that no child should be exposed to,” said Charlie Winter, a researcher and ISIS expert at the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think tank focused on counter-terrorism. “In a way, it’s something of a rite of passage, one that will obviously have a lasting impact on them.” 

The images that depict these commonplace executions are a marked departure from the violent propaganda that’s made ISIS notorious around the world. They are not the highly-choreographed killings of captured soldiers, purported spies and western journalists aimed at provoking reaction. Instead, those punished tend to be citizens from the towns in Syria and Iraq that ISIS controls who are accused of violating Sharia law. The target audience is the people already under Islamic State rule, including children.

More The Uphill Battle To Saving ISIS’ Child Soldiers

Last month, a large crowd, including dozens of little boys, gathered in a neighborhood in Nineveh province in northern Iraq to watch ISIS fighters stone an alleged adulterer to death, according to images viewed by Vocativ. A week later, teenagers were among those gathered in the Syrian town of Hassakah to watch a man accused of blasphemy take a bullet to the head.

The constant stream of punishment is one way in which the jihadist group galvanizes ideological supporters. It can also be seen as a remedy to the lawlessness that has consumed parts of Syria and Iraq for years. “ISIS has shown the ability to act quickly and without compromise,” Winter said. “The idea of swift justice can be quite an appealing and alluring idea.”

For children, the Islamic State’s “routinization of violence” could have a dehumanizing effect, said Mia Bloom, a terrorism specialist and professor of communications at Georgia State University. “It allows militants to completely shift what young people consider is right or wrong,” she said. “Without a moral compass, these kids could be damaged permanently.”

It is not always clear how often kids are coerced into attending these executions, analysts say. Some children have been lured to such events with candy or toys, according to experts and witness reports. The public killings have also been used as a means to groom child soldiers, which ISIS has been recruiting using to carry out executions themselves.

More ISIS Propaganda Strategy: Beyond Beheadings And Elaborate Executions

But even those who stand and silently witness the killings face the prospect of irreparable harm, said Bloom, who is co-authoring a book on terrorism and children. Studies that examine children exposed to war or regular acts of violence show they can suffer from a series of psychological traumas. Some may experience PTSD or the inability to have normal relationships. Others can develop sleep disorders or drug dependency. They are also more likely to commit acts of violence later in life. 

Bloom has even greater concerns for the children living under the Islamic State. “They’re almost certainly creating a new generation of psychopaths,” she said.